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Fountain of Life

Jul 12, 2020 | Dave Gustavsen

Making Decisions

Proverbs 3:1-8

Good morning Chapel family! Great to be with you today. We are so excited for this upcoming week—with Chapel Kids Camp and the Lockdown Games Monday through Friday, and then next Sunday night, the outdoor worship event at our Lincoln Park Campus—it is going to be so good to see many of you guys in person and worship with you. I also have some big news today about when we’ll be re-opening for live services. So I know a lot of you have been waiting for this. And I’ll share those plans at the end of today’s service. 

So…we are taking this summer to walk through the book of Proverbs, which is all about wisdom. And one of the times in life when we most need wisdom is when we’re faced with a decision. So we get to pick between A and B. The Honda or the Toyota. That’s not too important, right? But how about this: you have to choose college A, or college B. That’s a little more significant. Or how about this: surgeon A or surgeon B to operate on you. Now the stakes are getting higher. So life is filled with decisions, and some of them are really important. And in reality, it’s usually not just A or B, right? It’s A or B or C or D or E. Isn’t it great that we have so many choices? Not necessarily.

I was reading an interview with a psychotherapist named Tess Brigham. Most of her clients are millennials—people in their 20s and 30s. And she said over the past five years, she’s noticed a dominant theme in the reason people come for help. You know what it is? They have so many choices, and they can’t decide what to do. And they’re terrified of making the wrong choice. Have you ever felt that way?

And right now, we are facing a whole new set of decisions. Do you wear the mask, or do you not wear the mask? Do you take the vacation, or do you not take the vacation? Fly or don’t fly? As a church: do we re-start in-person services or not quite yet? And here’s the thing: for every one of those choices, you can find people who are passionate on both sides, right? And usually, refusing to make a decision is actually a decision.

So…this is a huge part of life, and Proverbs speaks directly into it. So before we look at the Scripture, I’m going to ask you to do something. Let’s make this really practical: think about a decision that you need to make. Right now—a choice that you have in front of you. It could be about work, or a relationship or finances or a ministry opportunity. Some choice you have to make. Do you have that situation in your mind? Okay, I’m going to pray for you right now. Lord, we need your wisdom. As we open your Word today, I pray that your Holy Spirit will enlighten our minds and give us the wisdom to make a good decision. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Okay—here we go: Proverbs 3, verses 5 and 6. Hear the Word of the Lord:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will direct your paths.
This is the Word of God.

So, three points today: First: Trust in the Lord. Second: Lean Not on Your Own Understanding, and third: He will Direct Your Paths. Okay? So Proverbs 3:5-6 is going to be our grid for hearing what the whole book of Proverbs teaches us about decision-making: Trust in the Lord, Lean Not on Your Own Understanding, and He Will Direct Your Paths.

So, first: Trust in the Lord. As you face decisions, there is actually a decision that lies beneath all your other decisions. And that is the choice to trust in the Lord. When we’ve made that decision, it changes the way we approach all our other decisions. Your decision about what college to attend; your decision about whether or not to propose to your girlfriend; your decision about whether to speak out against injustice; even your decision about whether or not to wear a mask—all of those decisions will look different if you’ve made the prior decision to trust in the Lord. So this is the decision that influences all our other decisions.

So let’s ask a really obvious question: what does it mean to “trust in the Lord.” Well, it means you have a view of God, that not only does he exist, but he is personal, and close, and knowable. You believe that God is right there with you. I love the way the author Dallas Willard expressed this: he said if you’re walking with Christ, you’re never actually alone. So, for example, if you’re a plumber, and you’re trying to solve a plumbing problem: it’s never just you and the pipe. It’s you and Jesus and the pipe. He’s with you; he cares; he’s in it with you. It’s never just you and the pipe. It’s never just you and the client. It’s never just you and the students. The living Christ is with you. So trust him. Remind yourself often that he’s there.

Trusting in the Lord also means trusting that he really does know what’s best. And therefore, you become passionate about aligning your life with his kingdom, rather than trying to build your own kingdom. Romans 12:1 expresses this really well: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. In other words, we don’t invite God to be part of our plans; we offer ourselves to be part of God’s plans. We sacrifice our desires and preferences to him. That’s a big shift! And it can be a very scary shift to make.

Francis Chan said it like this: “Deep down, many of us want to control our own lives, and the thought of being led by the Spirit is unnerving and scary. So before we ask for the Holy Spirit, we need to release our grip of control on our lives.” And honestly, that’s not a one-time thing. The act of offering ourselves as a living sacrifice is a daily decision: today, am I going to be all about my will, or am I going to offer myself to do God’s will? So that’s what it means to trust in the Lord, and that’s the decision that underlies all our other decisions.

How do you know if you’re doing this? I mean, are there things to look for in your life, that sort of give evidence that you’re trusting in the Lord? I think there are. Let me mention two.

First, when you have a decision to make, you pray about it like you mean it. I mean, you pray specifically, and expectantly and intensely. Because you really believe that God cares about your life. When you find yourself leaning in a certain direction, you invite God to step in and stop you if it’s not the right decision. I can still remember when I was about to propose to Norma Jean. And I prayed, “Lord, you know I’m getting ready to do this. You know I want to marry this girl. I have the ring. But if there’s any reason you don’t want this, do something to stop it.” And that’s a scary prayer, right? Especially if you really want something. But it’s a prayer of trust. And in that case, thankfully, God didn’t stop me. So when you’re trusting in the Lord, prayer becomes a big part of making decisions.

And then second, if you’re trusting in the Lord, you will make some decisions that seem strange to people who don’t know God. Does that make sense? You will make some choices in life—because of your trust in the Lord—that seem really odd to people who don’t know God. They won’t get it. I was doing premarital counseling with an engaged couple recently, and they had decided not to live together until after the wedding. That’s becoming a very countercultural choice. And they said, “Our friends don’t get it. They can’t understand why we don’t just move in together.” But they made that decision because they’re trusting in the Lord. When you’re trusting in the Lord, you will make decisions about your money that seem strange to some people. You might use your vacation time in ways that people don’t understand. You might volunteer to serve in local inner cities, and that will seem dangerous to some people—“Why would you do that?” I would say this: if every decision you make seems completely normal to people who don’t know God, you’re probably not trusting in the Lord.

So step number one—the decision beneath all the other decisions—is to trust in the Lord. It’s a very personal thing. Trust him!

There was a famous author and philosopher named John Kavanaugh, and early in his career he made a three-month visit to Calcutta, India to work with Mother Teresa. While he was there, he was struggling with whether to stay in India and continue working with poor, or return to America and become a college professor. So he asked Mother Teresa, “Would you pray for me to have clarity?” And Mother Teresa, “No, I won’t do that. I’m not going to pray for that.” He said, “Well, why not?” She said, “Because you don’t need clarity. What you need most is trust.” And he said, “But it seems like you’ve always been clear on exactly what you’re supposed to do!” Mother Teresa laughed and she said, “No—I’ve never had clarity. What I’ve always had is trust. So I will pray that you will trust God.”

Trust in the Lord with all your heart. That’s the decision beneath all other decisions.

Here’s the second thing: Lean Not on Your Own Understanding. We are living in a culture that tells us: “Listen to your heart.” “Trust your instincts.” Right? “Nobody can tell you what’s right for you except you.” “You do you.” And the Bible says, “Nah—you’re not that smart.” So Proverbs warns us of two ways we might be tempted to lean on our own understanding.

First: The danger of over-confidence. Proverbs 12:15 says…

The way of fools seems right to them,
    but the wise listen to advice.

So a foolish person just goes ahead and does what they feel like doing—what their gut tells them. She got engaged because she was in love. But her friends were concerned. They saw warning signs in the relationship—especially his anger that would flair up way too often. So a couple of her friends had the courage to talk to her. They shared their concerns. And she said, “I appreciate your concern, but I know this is right. I know he loses his temper sometimes, but he’s just frustrated about his job; as soon as he finds a new job, it’ll be fine.” They got married, he did find a new job, but it wasn’t fine. The marriage was a disaster. Now she wishes she had listened.

Wise people listen to advice. In fact, they go out of their way to seek advice. Look at Proverbs 15:22…

Plans fail for lack of counsel,
    but with many advisers they succeed.

So wise people gather lots of advisers. They’re humble enough to know that there are people who know more than they do. Who have more experience than they do. So before they make a big decision, they seek many advisers. They say things like, “Hey, let me bounce this off of you.” “Can I get your opinion on something?” “Tell me if I’m missing something here.” Last week in my men’s group, I asked the guys, “Hey, how do you feel when someone comes to you and asks for your advice?” You know what they said? “I feel honored. I feel respected.” And then I reminded them, “That’s the way other people feel when you ask them for advice. It’s not annoying; it’s not inconvenient (I mean, unless you bother someone five times a day). When you ask someone for advice, they will be honored and you will be smarter. So…ask.

You know who’s a great example of this? Pastor Ted. Our executive pastor. I hope he doesn’t mind me mentioning him in this sermon. Over the past few months, The Chapel has had some of the hardest decisions we’ve ever faced. And as we talk through options, here’s what Ted says all the time: “I was talking to Dave Brooks, the Executive Pastor from Liquid Church, about this—here’s what they’ve learned. I was talking to Steve Hawthorne from Emergence—here’s how they’re handling it. I was talking to Tim Chicola from The Crossing church—here’s how they’re thinking through this.” He is always reaching out, having conversations, learning from other leaders. Now: that doesn’t mean we necessarily do what other churches do! But when we make a decision, man, we’ve done our homework. We know the options. We don’t have many blind spots. Because we have an Executive Pastor who’s wise enough to seek advice. (And by the way, when you’ve listened to advice, and then your plans fail miserably, now you have somebody to blame—which is nice. Just kidding).

So…some of us need to learn how to humble ourselves and listen to advice. Now: some of you have a different challenge. You’re not too quick to make decisions. Oh no. Just the opposite. So here’s the warning for you: The Danger of Over-Analysis. I’m going to cheat a little bit here. Because this principle is hinted at in Proverbs, but there’s another place in the Hebrew wisdom literature that says it in a memorable way. So look with me at Ecclesiastes 11, verse 4:

Whoever watches the wind will not plant;
    whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

In other words, if you’re a farmer and you’re always analyzing the conditions—checking the weather reports, checking them again five minutes later, examining the wind and the cloud formations, waiting for the perfect conditions to arrive…guess what? You will  never get out there and plant the seed. Right? You’re always procrastinating; there’s always a reason why it’s not time yet. And because you never plant, you never get to reap the rewards of a crop.

So how does this apply to making decisions? Some of you are so analytical, to the point of perfectionism. So when you have a decision to make, you research; you seek out all kinds of advice;  you lie in bed thinking through scenarios. Right? You know who you are? And you worry about it, and you just need a little more time. So you become paralyzed by indecisiveness. And the Bible is reminding us that there’s never a perfect decision, and sometimes you have to just choose.

This is one of my favorite bumper stickers: “The road of life is paved with flat squirrels who couldn’t make a decision.” You’ve seen them on the road, right? I could go to this side…or this side…no, maybe this side…WHAM. That’s not in the book of Proverbs, but it’s true.

I was on a mission trip a few years ago with my friend, Alistair Bate. And in his teaching session, he told a story. He was on vacation, and he was in a canoe with two of his daughters. In the lake, there were two little islands. And so, one of his daughters—the one sitting in the front—wanted to go to the island over there. His other daughter, the one sitting in the back, wanted to go to the other island. So both daughters started paddling toward their preferred island. And Alistair said it was hilarious, because the canoe started going in circles, and at one point it almost sank. So he finally had to take charge, and he said, “Look: they’re both beautiful islands. But if we don’t choose one, we will not get to any island.” So they picked one of the islands, and off they went.

And I so appreciated that. Because—true confession—I tend to be a little too analytical. I can see both sides of an issue: both islands look really good! And both islands have some dangers. I don’t know which island I should move toward. Let’s do a little more research. So if I lean on my own understanding—the way I’m wired—I can put off deciding forever. I can be paralyzed. So as I’ve come to learn that about myself, I sometimes have to push myself to just pick a direction and trust God with the results. Either one of the islands would be better than spinning around in the middle of the lake.

So, first: trust in the Lord. Second: lean not on your own understanding. And here’s the final thing it’s the last phrase in Proverbs 3:6…He Will Direct Your Paths. In some translations it says, “he will make your paths straight.” So even though you’re the one making decisions and choosing options, ultimately the process is guided by God. Proverbs 16:9 says it like this:

In their hearts humans plan their course,
    but the Lord establishes their steps.

So there’s nothing wrong with making plans. We should make plans! But just remember that you’re not God. And your plans might not work out the way you think they will. And therefore, Proverbs 27:1 says:

Do not boast about tomorrow,
    for you do not know what a day may bring.

As you make decisions and plans, stay humble. Hold your plans loosely. Don’t be shocked if God has something in store for you that’s very different than what you thought.

I’ve shared with you before that when I started college, I had decided what I was going to do with my life. I was a Human Nutrition major, with a chemistry minor, and I was fully planning on being an MD Nutritionist. I joined a club on campus for pre-med students. I studied hard. So my first year, I sort of tolerated chemistry. I didn’t really enjoy it, but I got A’s and B’s. And then came second year, and I had to take organic chemistry. It’s hard for me to describe how unpleasant I found that class. It was confusing and frustrating and boring all at the same time. And I realized I was headed for a really bad grade. So internally, there was this conflict. On the one hand, I wanted to be a doctor. That was my dream! On the other hand, I was realizing that I didn’t really like doctor-y kinds of classes. And at the same time, God was getting a hold of my life, and I was falling in love with Jesus and the Bible.

So about halfway through my second year, I realized that my plan of being a doctor might not be God’s plan. And I’ll be honest: that was a painful thought—to give up that dream. And I didn’t know what that meant—for a while I thought I’d be a counselor; then I thought maybe I’d translate the Bible into remote languages; it was a very uncertain time, and I felt very not in control.  But here’s the point: through all of that, God was directing my path. Through my fumbling and uncertainty, God was still sovereign. And he used that time to steer me where he wanted me to go.

So listen—maybe you’re like me: you always had a certain dream for your life, but now you’re beginning to question that. And you’re having a hard time letting go of that dream. God is working through that. He’s directing you. Trust him. Or maybe you’ve might have made some really bad choices in life. Either sinfully bad or just stupid bad. And maybe you’re experiencing some of the consequences of your bad decisions. God is working through that. He’s directing your paths, even through your stupidity. Isn’t that comforting? God is way bigger than our imperfect decisions. So pray a lot, listen to advice from wise people, and make the best decisions you can. But at the end of the day, don’t trust in your great decisions; trust in the Lord.

Thomas Merton was a monk who lived in the last century. And I don’t embrace everything he taught, but he had some great insights into spiritual life. And he wrote this prayer that became known as “The Merton Prayer.” And it’s a great way to end today’s message. Here’s the prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will direct your paths.

Let’s prepare our hearts for communion…

Series Information

Life can be so confusing—especially in a pandemic. At a time when everything seems to be changing, let’s root ourselves in the unchanging wisdom of Proverbs. Throughout this 3,000-year-old book, wisdom is referred to as “the fountain of life”—exactly what we need when we’re exhausted, empty, and dry. Come and drink deeply from the fountain of life.